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Texas town mulling options after being denied federal funds

Tony Gutierrez / AP

An American flag planted by the curb in front of this home waves in the breeze as a tractor demolishes a home in West, Texas, on Friday, May 31, 2013.

The small town of West, Texas, is making plans to move forward after being denied additional funds from The Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild after a deadly fertilizer plant explosion last April.

Governor Rick Perry received a letter from FEMA on June 10th, rejecting his request to declare a major disaster declaration in the town of West, Texas. 

The letter stated bluntly: “It has been determined that the remaining cost for permanent work is within the capabilities of the state and affected local governments. Accordingly, we have determined that a major disaster declaration is not necessary.”

As a result of the denial, Texas officials said West will be forced to absorb an estimated $57 million in public damages.

“I’d just like a little definition on what they consider a disaster,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska, a volunteer firefighter himself who helped battle the explosion and inferno that killed 15 and injured 160. “If they would see what I see, and if they saw what I saw and still see, I don’t understand how this is a disaster that doesn’t merit a declaration.”

The disappointed mayor must now face the daunting question of what to do next.  But Muska said that he will look into any and every avenue for help — including calling on soldiers at the Army base in Ft. Worth to come start rebuilding infrastructure, to reaching out to the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers for help.

“We need help, and we need it now so people don’t move away from our small town,” said Muska who visited with Gov. Perry to discuss plans on how to move forward.

The mayor said he will work with the governor’s office to prepare a letter of appeal to be sent to President Barack Obama. The letter will include additional information about the damage in West, with hopes that it will be enough to persuade FEMA to reconsider.

But FEMA officials countered that the agency already took into consideration a number of factors when assessing the request and that, “personnel at the Joint Field Office in West, TX and in the field are actively working with state and local officials to prepare project worksheets for reimbursement of costs related to debris removal and emergency protective measures.”

The agency said it has also helped some individuals and small businesses affected collect over $7 million in federal disaster aid.

Still, Josh Havens, a spokesman for Gov. Perry, said, “FEMA’s decision to deny funds was weird because in this case, a little town sustained enough loss to qualify for assistance on both local and state levels with one single localized event.”

Tony Gutierrez / AP

This April 18, 2013 aerial photo shows a destroyed fertilizer plant, top, following an explosion in West, Texas.

This is not the first time, however, that FEMA has turned down a request for assistance after a non-natural disaster emergency.

In 2010, the town of San Bruno, in Northern California, was denied millions of dollars in public funding after a major Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline explosion.

“At the time I was disappointed,” said San Bruno Mayor, Jim Ruane. “On a national basis, we weren’t recognized. No one said, ‘You people have been through this horrific explosion and the country is watching you and wanting you to rebuild and we want to help you though this.’”

Despite being denied funds from FEMA, PG&E as well as other entities, came forward to claim responsibility for the explosion in San Bruno, and established a $50 million trust fund for the city to help with rebuilding. The city also received $70 million to be used to establish a nonprofit from PG&E for the city as a whole.

Texas public officials would not comment on any litigation against Adair Grain, Inc., owner of the West plant, but two lawsuits have reportedly already been filed by a group of individuals and small businesses.

San Bruno’s Mayor Ruane said the best piece of advice he could offer the town of West is to, “get the city together and say that we as elected officials are there to hold their hand if they need it.”